Charles Munger Jr. Speaks on the Art of Political Reform

Joel Fox
Editor and Co-Publisher of Fox and Hounds Daily

In a session dedicated to reforming California politics, one of the chief movers behind recent reforms told an audience at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo last week that he won’t proceed with further reforms until he has “an army at his back.” Physicist and philanthropist Charles Munger Jr., who financially supported and campaigned for successful redistricting reform and the top-two primary in the state, says more political reforms are needed in California.

After being involved in a number of state proposition campaigns, Munger has concluded that any reform needs support from an army of people or someone who has a bully pulpit. He said Governor Schwarzenegger used the bully pulpit effectively in helping pass both redistricting and the top two primary.

Munger revealed that his plunge into political reform actually came because of a number of ballot defeats. Munger said he was enamored with Schwarzenegger’s attempt in the 2005 special election to push numerous reforms, including redistricting. Even though all four measures Schwarzenegger championed went down at the polls, Munger decided he had to involve himself with changing the way California politics works.

Munger said he couldn’t stand the fact that only one of 53 congressional seats in the state were in play at election time because the districts were drawn by politicians to keep their seats safe.

Learning from the mistakes of Proposition 77, which would have put judges in charge of redistricting, he said he understood that the voters wanted to make the call on important state matters. The Proposition 11 redistricting plan relied on a citizens’ commission to draw district lines. Once Prop 11 passed changing the way state legislative districts were drawn, Munger took on congressional redistricting.

Proposition 20 written to change congressional redistricting also passed. Munger says he is “very proud” that now 20-25 percent of the contested seats in the next national congressional election will be in California. Most other states still allow redistricting by politicians.

Munger also praised the top two primary. He said critics don’t understand that the top-two primary (allowing the top two finishers in a primary election to face off in the general election no matter their party affiliation) was not designed to enhance the election of moderates. He argued that candidates elected from districts will be much more representative of the voters in the district.

Under the old primary system, Munger said that campaigning to win a primary was all that mattered. Voters in minority parties would have little sway in selecting their representative in the general election. Munger contended that the top two primary now involves all the voters in the general election.

Munger acknowledged a number of active members of his own Republican Party do not support the top two primary. He said it was not fun fighting his own party.

As a Republican, Munger admitted he wasn’t too pleased at the recent state election outcomes given the overwhelming victories by Democrats. He said he believed his party would lead the state better. He expects Republicans will adapt to battling under the new rules as time goes on.

Needing an army on his side to pursue future reforms, Munger is dedicating himself to building the Republican Party. He did not announce any future reform plans. While stating emphatically that his next project will not be a re-do of the defeated Proposition 32, which was designed to give both public and private employees and union members more control when it comes to their political donations, he did say he expects such a plan will pass someday.

Munger was interviewed by former state senator Sam Blakeslee, now director of the Institute for Advanced Technology & Public Policy at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Blakeslee said political reform is achieved by changing the rules that politics runs by. According to Blakeslee, the political system produces behaviors that determine political outcomes. If citizens are dissatisfied with the political direction fostered by the current political processes, then they must change the rules.

Blakeslee argued the goal of reform was not to stop special interests but rather to overwhelm special interests by generating civic engagement by the public so the people are driving the agenda.

Other political reform proposals were discussed at the forum. Cal Poly SLO professor Matt Latner argued for proportional representation; John Cox put forth his plan for a neighborhood legislature, which he has written about on this page before; Phillip Ung of Common Cause outlined potential reforms to the initiative process (full disclosure—I have been part of those discussions); and panel moderator Dan Schnur of USC’s Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics pushed for banning political fundraising during the legislative session.

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